The Sundance Film Festival has been dominated for so long by a circus of cell phones, models, agents and celebrity-hunting media hounds that it has become difficult to locate worthy films amid the crush of tabloidesque media coverage. Adding to the problem has been the spread of indie films aimed at

industry standards, a subset dubbed "Indiewood." This year, thanks perhaps to dotcom crashes and economic sobriety, the streets of Park City, Utah, were lined with a bit less gold, and Sundance reclaimed its birthright as the soul–not merely the platform–of independent film, delivering a full slate of entries concerned with meaning, truth and real-world issues. Over and over, films rejected formula in favor of new styles, production tools and narrative strategies. There were even political broadsides on Main Street, courtesy of the Guerrilla Girls and "Alice Locas." Agitprop messages targeted the film profession: The U.S. Senate Is More Progressive Than Hollywood, proclaimed one; Female Senators: 9%. Female Directors: 4%. The stickers were a welcome addition to the usual huckstering aimed at getting folks to a movie.

As usual, some of the most thought-provoking and soul-stirring work was found in the World Cinema section. The Back of the World ("La Espalda del Mundo"), by the Madrid-based Peruvian director, Javier Corcuera, is a trilogy of injustice that takes its time getting to know, and introducing us to, its central characters: a child laborer and his family and friends in Peru; a Kurdish exile in Stockholm; his Turkish village; and death-row inmates and their families in Texas. They all have names, details, faces. Tilting at the windmills of child labor, ethnic repression and capital punishment, Corcuera wisely favors the individual over the polemical. Utterly free of didacticism, The Back of the World brushes its subjects with the luminosity of an oil painting. It's impossible to exit the theater unmoved.

Far different is the dramatic film Without a Trace ("Sin Dejar Huella") by Mexican director Maria Novaro. She's concerned with freedom, not restraints. Her fanciful script follows two women on the run across Mexico, from Juárez to Cancun. A red car is after them, but is it the angry drug dealer or the corrupt policeman at the wheel? In this breezy road movie, Novaro finds plenty of opportunities to poke delicious fun at the state of affairs in her country, from Vicente Fox's cowboy style to the idealization of Subcomandante Marcos. Its shared Sundance award for best Latin American film should help the movie in the United States, where it's bound to be compared to Thelma & Louise; after all, they were heading for Mexico when they ran into the Grand Canyon.

Of the US films, the most audacious and risk-taking was Waking Life, an extraordinary animation from Austin-based director Richard Linklater, whose previous films (Slacker, Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise) hardly prepared the audience for this foray into philosophy and psychic phenomena (he was represented by a second film in the festival as well, of which more later). Linklater teamed up with Bob Sabiston and Tommy Pallota to make a live-action film with digital footage of seventy-five people–actors, academics and experts–walking and talking, then engaged a team of artists to animate the footage using Sabiston's new type of software. The result is a film peopled by remarkable hybrids that look like cartoons but move and speak like real folks.

Waking Life's protagonist, a drawn-upon Wiley Wiggins (Dazed and Confused's long-faced star), meanders through town looking for the meaning of life, the nature of consciousness, the difference between dreaming and being awake. People give him advice. "So whatever you do, don't be bored. This is absolutely the most exciting time we could have possibly hoped to be alive. And things are just starting." Stuff like that. Meanwhile, colors and lines mutate on screen. Nothing is as it seems. Linklater and his animation collaborators have clearly had a lot of fun, morphing characters into their own conversational subjects, destabilizing their environs, throwing the material world into question. To extend the fun, the film's promotional packet was a coloring book. Get it? Color outside the lines, or something like that. A fervent tour de force, Waking Life augurs well for the new technologies. If it becomes a hit on college campuses, it just might spark a revival of existentialism, which one character insists has been unfairly pegged as negative when it's actually quite an optimistic philosophy.

After years of seeing juvenilia touted as hip, it was a treat to discover dramatic films made with maturity and restraint, performed by splendid actors at the peak of their careers, written and directed by filmmakers who knew just what they were doing because this wasn't their first time out of the gate. The Deep End by Scott McGehee and David Siegel and The Sleepy Time Gal by Christopher Münch were two such films, prompting their viewers to think hard about both film and life itself.

The Deep End was inspired by Max Ophuls's classic noir, The Reckless Moment. McGehee and Siegel went back to the original source, Elisabeth Sanxay Holding's novel A Blank Wall, and made it their own. In their version, the brilliant Scottish actress Tilda Swinton plays a mother who will do anything to protect her gay son–even if that entails confronting a sleazy Reno gay-club proprietor, disposing of a corpse, diving into Lake Tahoe and standing up to a blackmailer. Finessing all her actions with a stunning display of spunk, Swinton carries the film lightly on her shoulders. The Deep End easily deserved the award for cinematography that it won, too: One shot, an image of Swinton reflected upside down in a drop of water falling from the kitchen faucet, aptly captures the watery universe dragging her down.

Writer/director Christopher Münch's task in The Sleepy Time Gal is considerably harder, as he deliberately places his film outside the confines of genre. Much of the pleasure of viewing The Sleepy Time Gal lies in the transcendent performance of the great Jacqueline Bisset, who plays the eponymous heroine, a onetime radio DJ fascinated by the early history of New York City, where she grew up and where she takes her son (Nick Stahl) on a nostalgic visit to upper Washington Heights near the start of the film. As the story proceeds, Bisset's character discovers she has cancer. No, she doesn't find any miracle cure; it's not that kind of movie. No, the daughter she gave up for adoption (played by the undervalued Martha Plimpton) probably won't show up in time for a sobfest finale; Münch isn't that kind of filmmaker. Instead, the film is about what matters in life, what we can and cannot do or undo, the difficulties and mistakes in relating to one another. Ultimately, it ponders how death rearranges all our certainties. Bisset's deathbed scene takes the breath away, especially for anyone who has ever sat vigil watching a loved one breathe their last.

Both The Deep End and The Sleepy Time Gal are evidence of a new intelligence that, given half a chance, could reanimate American independent cinema. Will they be seen? The Deep End was picked up by Fox Searchlight and will certainly be coming to a theater near you. The Sleepy Time Gal still lacked a distributor by festival's end.

The festival's Grand Jury Prize for best dramatic film was awarded to The Believer, a traditional but well-made examination of one Danny Balint, a disgruntled yeshiva student turned skinhead thug. "Love your enemy" is his reply to those who question how he happens to know so much arcane Judaica. In one scene, the increasingly confused Danny is busy simultaneously trashing a synagogue and rescuing a Torah from his gang's defilement. Inspired by the true story of a neo-Nazi unmasked as a Jew, director/writer Henry Bean peoples his tale with a frightening cast of characters meant to compose a right-wing salon of New York intelligentsia, elegant yet all too happy to deploy messengers like Danny.

Judaism turned up in documentary, too. Where The Believer gave us a character torn between faith and ideology, Sandi Simcha DuBowski's Trembling Before G-d documents real-life characters torn between religion and sexuality as they struggle to combine their faith as Orthodox Jews with their identities as gay men and lesbians. Happily, the film has a hero: Rabbi Steven Greenberg, the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi, whose joyousness stands in marked contrast to the pervasive suffering. In what has to be a Sundance first, DuBowski and Rabbi Greenberg invited believers and nonbelievers, Jews and gentiles, to a Sabbath dinner. Some fifty Sundancers took time out from chasing the next hot title to break bread and discuss something other than movies. It was to its credit that the meal felt more like a spiritual respite than a promotional tie-in.

If the search for truth, faith and life's meaning surfaced early in the festival, another, more specific subject soon presented itself. The theme of rape showed up in a number of films–another festival first. While the act of rape is unfortunately nothing new in Sundance offerings, the exploration of rape as a brutal experience demanding investigation and even retribution is very new indeed.

The Business of Strangers, a tense chamber-piece starring Stockard Channing and Julia Stiles as unlikely business associates thrown together by a plane cancellation, uses rape as a crowbar to pry open the psyche. Channing is terrific as a tough businesswoman whose defenses crumble when she thinks she's been fired. She hasn't been, but the momentary vulnerability sets her up for an encounter with Stiles, playing a wild-card beauty who's captivating and unreliable. Writer/director Patrick Stettner focuses his story on an allegation of rape and enactment of revenge. But did a rape ever occur? That's a question that soon comes up again.

Richard Linklater conceived Tape, a much smaller production, as a low-budget exercise in using the new digital cameras. On his one-room set, one man confronts another with his memory of a long-ago rape, and they thrash out their arguments with Beckett-like intensity. Linklater manages to make us pay attention to the story, perhaps because stars are involved: Ethan Hawke as the accuser, Uma Thurman as the alleged victim who refuses victimization and Robert Sean Leonard as the accused rapist turned, yup, filmmaker. It's a wonderfully tense tale, played out with humor and sarcasm.

Unlike Business, with its lush 35-millimeter look, Linklater played up the digitality: His camera swoops and pans all over the room while camera angles stretch the limits of what we're used to seeing. Why? Because he can. Tape was one of the films brought to Sundance by InDigEnt, a new outfit established to finance low-budget films ($150,000-$200,000) shot with digital cameras and intent on exploiting the cutting-edge styles and basement economics that the so-called digital revolution keeps promising. Like it or not–and many filmmakers and critics don't–digital production is already a reality and was ubiquitous at the festival. The documentary category is almost completely converted, as many filmmakers in that world have long since been forced by economics as well as production necessity to give up film for video.

The theme of men confronting one another over rape reappears in Things Behind the Sun, the new opus of Allison Anders (Gas Food Lodging, Grace of My Heart), which draws on her own experience of rape at age12 to create a powerful film detailing how such an act can deform everyone involved for years to come. Actress Kim Dickens is sensational as the promising singer-songwriter driven to self-destruction by a rape in her youth. A young rock critic tries to remind her of what she's tried hard to forget, then goes on to confront his imprisoned brother, the perpetrator. Anders takes a hard look at questions of memory, guilt and recuperation. Anders shot her film, too, in digital video and credited the intimacy of the medium with achieving such emotionally powerful scenes.

The most controversial rape debate centered around Raw Deal: A Question of Consent, a documentary that makes the fictions look tame. Billy Corben and Alfred Spellman look at an infamous 1999 University of of Florida incident: A Delta Chi fraternity party went bad, and the exotic dancer hired for the night, Lisa Gier King, went to the police charging rape. After viewing videotapes of the night in question, though, the cops arrested King instead of the frat boys and charged her with filing a false report, claiming the tapes showed consensual sex [see Jennifer Baumgardner, "What Does Rape Look Like?" January 3, 2000]. The Campus NOW chapter argued that the tapes proved rape. The state attorney sold the gamey videos for $20 to anyone who was interested. Once Raw Deal played Sundance, the New York Post splashed it all over its front page, further blurring the hazy line between investigation and sensationalism. In the film, the explicit footage is so rough that voyeuristic pleasure would seem unlikely; Raw Deal is sure to spark debates about date rape, coercion and the limits of individual responsibility. At least as scummy as the alleged rapist is the sanctimonious fraternity brother who speaks contemptuously of King, disses her social status, then is seen engaged in sex acts with her. It's a dark, dark view of both frat life and contemporary morality.

It took a fiction film–Series 7: The Contenders, by first-time director Dan Minahan–to top that toxic level of contamination, this time in the form of parody. Minahan learned the vocabulary of the new "reality" TV so well that Series 7 is a pitch-perfect satire of the genre: It takes the form of a TV show that selects contestants at random, arms them and instructs them to fight to the death. In its Darwinian universe, the survivor is, well, the winner. Series 7 is brilliant irony, complete with television-style promos and wild video-camera chases (yes, digital again) meant to convince viewers that it's "real." At least this year, for once, Sundance itself didn't look like a franchise of just such a program.